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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 July 2007, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
When the waters clear
T'was ever thus - facing down the floods in 1953

God, climate change and the government are among those in the firing line for this summer's floods, but nature is the key culprit, says Frank Furedi. History shows the British are well equipped to face down this foe.

We were very lucky, the flooding stopped a few feet away from our cottage in Wellesbourne in Warwickshire. "Isn't it time we went back to church and prayed" a relative asked one of our other "lucky" friends.

Even in the 21st Century we find it difficult not to invest misfortune and tragedy with a hidden message. Most of us cannot accept the fact that disasters, especially floods are very natural. They are as much a part of the British way of life as football, warm beer and Big Ben.

Just last week scientific researchers reported that we became an island hundreds of thousands of years ago when a catastrophic "megaflood" separated Britain from France.

The scene in 1607

If you think today we have more than our share of floods, imagine living in Windsor during the late Victorian times. You would have been forced to clear the water from your house in 1869, 1872, 1875, 1891 and 1894.

Of course floods are catastrophic events that inflict destruction on communities and wreak havoc with the lives of individuals. But although words like "the worst in living memory" trip off our tongues, thankfully we have not been forced to face a truly calamitous event such as the flood of 1953. More than 300 people drowned in that disaster in south-east England.

Human beings find it difficult to accept the fact that although fortunately disasters are infrequent they are part of normal life. From the beginning of time people have asked questions like "why me?", "what does it mean?" and "who is to blame?".

Back in 1864 when almost 250 people died in the aftermath of the flood of Bradfield Reservoir near Doncaster, a churchman, Thomas Hughes, expressed the hope that although "we cannot remedy the past" we "may carry lessons of wisdom to the future".

But how much have we learned?

God's response

Some regard a disaster as an opportunity to make a moral statement. The Bishop of Carlisle has represented the flood as a cautionary tale about the perils of immorality.

Communities in Britain often respond to floods with gestures of solidarity and generosity rather than stealing from one another
Frank Furedi

He argued earlier this month that the floods are the consequence of our moral behaviour - lack of care and lack of restraint. Others have rushed in pointing the finger human induced global warming, whilst others still are happy to blame the government."

How we make sense of a disaster has a crucial impact on the way that a community experiences its misfortune. That is why experts, the media and public figures have to ensure that their statements are not alarmist or confusing.

A headline such as "Looting, panic buying - and a water shortage", from yesterday's Times does little to encourage morale. Such headlines say more about the imagination of the author than what's going on in the affected communities. Especially when this story was about the "threat of looting" rather than crimes that have actually occurred.

In fact, experience shows that communities in Britain often respond to floods with gestures of solidarity and generosity rather than stealing from one another.

Dunkirk/Blitz spirit in abundant supply
Thankfully disasters have the potential to bring out the best in people. Back in 1953 observers were struck by the resilience and fortitude of flood-stricken communities. A report on this experience written by an American research team emphasised the robust and resilient character of the community's response to the floods. The American researchers claimed that "the culture of the British is itself a conditioning factor for playing an effective role under disaster conditions".

Will a team of researchers reach a similar verdict on how flood stricken communities in Gloucestershire or Bedfordshire deal with their predicament today? Or will they report that many individuals and communities were afflicted by a sense of bitterness or hopelessness.

It is never clear in advance just how communities will deal with life in the aftermath of a flood. The good news is that research shows people possess formidable potential for dealing with catastrophes.

Floods and other disaster destroy physical and financial capital. But not relations between people and their networks - what's often called social capital.

Even truckloads of goodwill can't offset the trauma of being flooded
Indeed, unlike any other form of capital - social capital can actually increase at a time of crisis. People who come together learn the importance of appreciating the value of neighbourly support, often act with greater community spirit in the aftermath of a disaster.

All of us can help by encouraging the victims of the flood to look for solutions that will improve their lives instead of looking for someone to blame. Blaming often weakens social capital and undermines the return to "normalcy".

Instead of looking for a hidden meaning behind the flood we ought to be focusing on learning the lessons. We now know that floods are normal part of our life. What we have to figure out is how much of our resources we are prepared to devote to minimising their destructive impact on our lives.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at University of Kent.

Below is a selection of your comments.

At last someone talking some sense about what is a very natural disaster. When will people realise that we were not destined to "control" everything - least of all the weather.
Angela Bill, Droitwich, Worcs

Well, it IS about time people realised that these things just happen, OK? It isn't always so called 'Global Warming' nor is it the fault of a God on high striking us down for our 'sins'. Natural disasters happen, live through it, live with it, get on with life. Stop trying to find someone/something to blame. And if this recent flooding is the 'worst' in 'living memory' then there are some awefully short memories out there, either that or there is no one in this country over the age of 54!!
LA, Derby UK

Floods and other disasters stop people in their tracks to evaluate their lives. Is life really about accumulating possessions, just to lose them to flood damage? What often happens in these situations is that people come together to help each other out rather than live their separate lives. This isn't unique to the UK either. After the September 11th attacks in America people started looking out for one another. It still makes me cry to think of those that gave their lives in the two towers simply because they were giving First Aid and waiting for help.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

While it is understandable that Professor Furedi is trying to help people cope, it is in fact patronising & unhelpful to tell people "disasters are normal but your reactions to them are not." In other words, you are un-natural creatures: and that feeds into the whole Humans vs. Nature paradigm. What we should be working on is Humans WITH Nature - which is why the "search for hidden meaning" is hard-wired into our DNA. The reason we search for hidden meaning, as we search for water & precious metals, is that Hidden Meaning does exist, although it is rarely as simplistic as our interpretations. Climate scientists have been telling us for decades now that we are disturbing the delicate balance or biospheric interactions. Certainly, there have been floods & droughts before, but the frequency, severity & general unconcern of most consumers about how much they contribute to pollution are all without precedent. Even the floods of the 1890s & 1950s after all might have been early warning signs that unchecked industrialisation would be paid for with a heavy price... For the poor woman whose twins were born early in a flooded home, and then died, "focusing on learning the lessons" means what, exactly, Professor Furedi? Grieving & sorrow are normal, natural responses, that are to be accorded respect, not dismissed. Worry is an appropriate response. Even the desire to go back to church or find a way of renewing the connection to the Greater Forces is appropriate: it may help someone become an easier person for others to live with. The real question to be asked is, if floods are so "common" why are we still building on the ground flood, and why are houses not built with the living essentials much higher up? Since we have had these floods before, we know pretty much which areas lie within a potential flood plain -- and we should be building accordingly.
Maria Amadei Ashot, Berkeley, California, USA

I agree with professor Frank Furedi's comment on people's reactions and attitudes toward natural disasters. However, I do think that there is a decline in moral and ethical standards in many of today's Western societies. There does not seem to be the respect for authority, or even the law. In almost every sphere of life, one can see a decline in people's morals and behaviour. In my opinion, this decline, is largely to do with the examples of immoral, unchristian, and in some cases, (Our invasion of Iraq) inhuman behaviour set by the leaders we elect. Their own moral behaviour is often at odds with how they expect us to live and behave in society. I think most people are "crying out" for decent, moral minded leaders, to set good examples to the people they govern, but sadly I see any kind of "good" politician, having a very difficult time in trying to improve the moral thinking and behaviour of our society. If nothing is done though, things will only get worse.
Philip Edwards (Mr), Connah's Quay, Flintshire. N Wales

At last, a report that is well thought out, intelligent and doesn't immediately blame all the recent floods (and other weather phenomena) on human induced climate change. The world is in a cycle, and the extreme weather being witnessed recently around the world is part of that cycle and something we must all learn to deal with without blaming everything on human induced climate change (a false excuse to exercise more control over our lives). Nature releases more harmful gas than we human's ever could.
Ash, Fareham, Hants

I was a victim of flooding in Derby in 1982 just around the time of the Falklands war as a 10 year old. It covered most of the fields within the inner city around near where I lived as well as the bottom of the street and was around 5 feet high in parts. It was truly horrendous. The sewarage rose up with faeces and toilet debris floating around everywhere. My twin brother and I had to get a dingy and sail to a friends for respite. One thing that did come out of it all though is that you adapt. You adapt to change; specifically the change in circumstance that is so abruptly brought about and isn't wanted, but as humans we modify ourselves remarkably well. It's astonishing. The social capital that is mentioned above by Professor Furedi is so true. Friends and neighbours (some of whom I never spoke to) offered help and assistance and there was a true British community spirit of old. It is a shame it takes an event like these sort of things for social capital to re-est! ablish itself again. I remember waking up in the morning and seeing everything and I mean everything floating in the house and just thinking; hey, this is happening, it isn't nice but we have to act now. We lost virtually all our family photos (as digital cameras were not in existance then) and things of low cost that were never replaceable (as we didn't have a great deal anyway!). Not very nice, and you feel it in later later years when you want to show family and friends photos of your childhood and you don't have any. It is not nice what is happening in the UK and I really feel for those going through it which was much worse than what I went through. Let's hope that they get the help and sustainability they need now so we can perhaps then adapt as a nation to what looks like is going to be a familiar beast to contend with.
Robbie W, Derby

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